Consumer Gear Helps U.S. Army Fill Battlefield Data Gap

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  Space News Business

Consumer Gear Helps U.S. Army Fill Battlefield Data Gap

By WILLIAM MATTHEWS

posted: 24 April 2009
12:46 pm ET





WASHINGTON — While the U.S. Army waits for its preferred technologies – such as the Joint Tactical Radio System, wideband gap-filler satellites and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical communications system – to mature, it is relying increasingly on commercial, off-the-shelf technology (COTS) to plug holes in its communications capabilities.

MobiLink
, the Army’s latest commercial communications acquisition, is a satellite communications system intended to give a small number of Army vehicles in Iraq the ability to stay linked to communications satellites even as they hustle along at highway speeds.

MobiLink
maker Datapath says the communications system will enable Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), Humvees, Strykers and other military vehicles to receive live video feeds, secure e-mail, voice-over-Internet, video teleconferences and other communications, “all while moving at 60-plus miles (96 kilometers) per hour.”

Datapath
announced April 7 that the Army has decided to buy eight satellite “communications-on-the-move” systems. Those are in addition to two systems the Army has been testing in Iraq since late last fall.

MobiLink
will turn Army vehicles into “an Internet oasis on wheels,” said Nelson Santini, a Datapath vice president for sales and marketing.

Not only will the vehicle be capable of receiving and sending large amounts of digital data in a variety of formats, it will also serve as wireless communications hubs that other nearby vehicles and ground troops can tap into to gain access to communications via satellites, Santini said.

The intent is to get as much information as possible as soon as possible to troops on the battlefield who need it, he said.

Programmable Antenna

An important piece of the Mobi-Link system is a motorized, programmable antenna. Key in satellite location data, and the antenna can search and find the correct satellite to connect to, and then stay locked on it even as the vehicle navigates a winding Iraqi wadi.

A control unit connected to the antenna monitors the position of the satellite, the changing position of the vehicle and the strength of the satellite signal. It triangulates the three and a motor keeps the antenna properly oriented, Santini explained.

So even at high speeds or rocking and rolling along a dirt desert track, MobiLink would enable an MRAP conducting a convoy, for example, to maintain the broadband connection needed to receive a video feed from unmanned aerial vehicles flying ahead to search for ambushes or freshly planted roadside bombs.

Vehicles equipped with Mobi-Link could also serve as mobile command-and-control centers that can receive intelligence, conduct video conferences, offer voice-over-Internet communications and provide access to the military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), Datapath says.

The idea is to compress the time between when troops receive intelligence and when they can act on it, Santini said.

With current systems, vehicles are required to stop to send and receive data via satellites.

Augment, Not Replace

Staying connected while under way means using a smaller antenna, but a smaller antenna means less data can be sent and received. So MobiLink is intended to augment, not replace, current stop-and-transmit systems – at least not yet, Santini said.

MobiLink
is a “very good” system that meets an immediate Army need, said Brad Curran, an aerospace and defense industry analyst for the business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“The Army realizes that it has to get satellite communications-on-the-move to as many units as possible, and to do that, they have to use COTS,” Curran said.

“With a COTS solution, you can go outside the program of record and get technology to the field quickly,” he said.

The programs of record for satellite communications-on-the-move include the much-delayed, cost-plagued Joint Tactical Radio System; the also delayed, budget-challenged wideband gap-filler satellite system; and the similarly challenged Warfighter Information Network-Tactical.

For now, “all of these technologies are immature,” Curran said. So an alternative is needed.

MobiLink
, on the other hand, makes satellite communications-on-the-move “available immediately,” Datapath says, and “at a reasonable cost.”

Santini
said each of the eight units being delivered to the Army will cost $100,000 to $120,000. That puts it in the same price range as current systems that require vehicles to halt in order to link to satellites, he said.

Affordable?
Perhaps, Curran said, but “not affordable enough to make it really widespread.”

And there are other potential drawbacks. Advocates of the Army’s programs of record “will tell you that it’s not as reliable” as the technology the Army would like to build, Curran said. Satellite signals may fade in heavy rain and in dust storms, for example.

“But the difference is not that great,” and the cost is much lower, he said. “You have to balance cost versus reliability.” And then there’s the whole matter of availability. The systems the Army prefers just aren’t ready yet.